Your next college textbook may be free

Wichita State University professor Mark Schneegurt has written a microbiology textbook that can be downloaded for free.
Wichita State University professor Mark Schneegurt has written a microbiology textbook that can be downloaded for free. The Wichita Eagle

Has there ever been a college student who wasn’t outraged by the cost of textbooks?

Many new editions cost more than $100, sometimes twice that.

“There were semesters when I spent the equivalent of a month’s rent on textbooks,” said senior Maddy Mikinski, an English/journalism major at the University of Kansas.

That is why a “new economy” textbook publishing effort holds such promise for students – and such danger for textbook publishers.

OpenStax is a 5-year-old independent nonprofit based at Rice University in Houston. Funded by a number of large philanthropic foundations and education materials companies, OpenStax pays professors to write the books and illustrators to do the graphics. It edits them, has them reviewed for accuracy, then publishes them online.

For free.

Students can also buy a print version of the books, at a cost ranging from $28 to $53, well below the typical price of new textbooks.

David Harris, editor in chief for OpenStax, said the organization aims to lower the cost of education by changing the business model of textbook publishing. It has published 20 textbooks on a range of subjects in the past four years.

The books are aimed at introductory college courses, particularly for subjects that tend not to change much from year to year.

OpenStax has almost no money for marketing, instead growing through word-of-mouth between professors at work or at academic conferences. So far, Harris said, students have adopted the books 400,000 to 500,000 times. Ninety percent are read online, while 10 percent of students buy the printed book. OpenStax says it has saved students $66 million since 2012.

Free textbooks with electronic distribution have been tried before but always ran into problems with adoption because their quality was seen as suspect.

Students – who may be swayed most by price – don’t get to choose the textbooks. Their professors, who are swayed by how appropriate and how accurate the books are, pick them.

That is why OpenStax says it places such stress on quality.

“They’re professionally produced,” Harris said. “The professors care most about the quality; they’re not actually buying the book.”

Local author

Mark Schneegurt, a biology professor at Wichita State University, recently finished an introductory microbiology textbook for the company, OpenStax Microbiology.

It will be published online in a few months and be in print next year.

Schneegurt is the lead writer, incorporating submissions by other experts along with his own work. Once complete, it was reviewed by other microbiologists for accuracy, he said. It was co-published by the American Society for Microbiology.

“I thought the model, the philosophy, was great,” he said. “Folks like me step up and do the work, and they have a stable full of free textbooks.”

Schneegurt, who has written for a number of textbook publishers before, said prices for new textbooks are so high because publishers are trying to recoup their money. They make most of their money in the first year of a new edition, then hold on as their sales plummet when the new edition appears on the used-book market. They generally issue a new edition every three to five years.

“I really liked this model a lot, and that’s what got me involved in it,” he said. “It’s not just that they are giving away the online version, but they are selling the print version for much less because a lot of poor students don’t have access to the internet.”

Textbooks prices falling

Commercial textbook publishers aren’t abandoning the field just yet.

Aware of the resistance to high-priced textbooks, they respond by saying they deliver a higher-quality, more customized, more engaging product than ever before. And, they say, it’s cheaper than ever before.

Some of that is because students in the past decade or two turned aggressively to the used-textbook market – transactions made vastly easier and cheaper in recent years with the internet, particularly Amazon.

Partly in response to the challenge of the used market, textbook publishers introduced renting, rather than buying, textbooks. They also are selling or renting e-textbooks, which cuts out the price of printing.

Plus, they say, they add value with extras such as videos, test booklets, problem sets and more.

David Anderson, executive director of the Association of American Publishers, said a recent art history text – a thick book full of expensive reproductions – would have sold a few years ago for $250. Today, the publisher produces an e-version that not only includes all the reproductions but also entertaining extras such as an interactive experience where the viewer can descend from space down to the French palace of Versailles in the time of Louis XIV and tour the halls. It costs $85.

As a result, students are actually spending less on textbooks than they used to. According to independent research firm Student Monitor, students said they spent $335 on textbooks in the fall semester of 2014 and $290 in the spring semester of 2016.

Slow change

Student Monitor managing partner Eric Weil said publishers already were feeling a lot of market pressure to stay affordable – and now comes OpenStax and other Open Educational Resources. Despite publishers’ best efforts to provide lower-priced options, the price advantage of OpenStax is compelling.

The students have only a little influence on buying decisions, but Weil thinks it will spread because professors are sensitive to students’ financial burden.

But, he said, it will be slow, because the price pressure is indirect. In the most recent survey in the spring, 8 percent of students said they used free textbooks.

“It’s the type of change that will be adopted very slowly,” he said. “It has to be adopted by two groups, both the students and the faculty.

“It won’t happen like a light switch. It will take at least a few years.”

Josh Bolick, who works at the University of Kansas’ library, was recently given the task of spreading the message of OpenStax and other Open Educational Resources to the faculty as a way to keep costs down for students.

The biggest hurdle, he said, is inertia. Professors and instructors are busy with research, advising and committee work in addition to teaching multiple courses. They typically teach courses they have already designed around textbooks that already exist. It’s hard to get them to read a new textbook and then design a course around it.

And even when professors are searching for new textbooks, the commercial vendors have large marketing budgets to get the books in front of instructors, something OpenStax lacks.

Bolick’s efforts started in January. In April, KU invited faculty to attend a workshop on open textbooks and invited attendees to review them. Once faculty review the textbooks, they are more likely to trust them and, maybe, include them in their courses, Bolick said.

He said 30 faculty members came to the workshop, and 10 said they would adopt them. There are about 1,500 faculty members at KU.

It’s a start, Bolick said. Free textbooks can sell themselves, if given the opportunity, but it will be a hard slog until a critical mass is reached.

“Changing a culture is very difficult to do,” Bolick said

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis